Paris Restaurant Observation

May 13th, 2003, 05:21 PM
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Paris Restaurant Observation

Had an interesting thing happen around me in a restaurant in the Marais this past Friday in Paris.

I was with my Dad who doesn't like to eat fashionably late so we arrived at the restaurant about 7:45. Surprisingly we weren't the first people. There was a couple of English speaking people at the front of the restaurant and a table of fluent French speakers in the back. I speak a little French and was seated with my Dad in the middle of the restaurant.

As the next hour went on and the restaurant became busier I noticed that English speakers were seated at the front, French speakers were in the back and people like me with a bit of French were in the middle. I was able to notice because most of the people walked in about as far as my table before the hostess got to them and I could hear them ask for seating: in English, in French or in French with an obvious accent.

I thought this was very interesting. There were only three servers who worked the whole place so they weren't dividing people out to put an English speaking server with the English crowd, etc. As the restaurant became close to full the seating became a free-for-all with groups seated where they would fit. I've never noticed this before, has anyone else?
indytravel is offline  
May 13th, 2003, 06:38 PM
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Oh, my! I never thought of that but now that you mention it, that happened at La Coupole when I was there. All the non-Frenchies were in one section. I didn't realize the connection till now.
MelissaHI is offline  
May 13th, 2003, 07:05 PM
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Sure. It happens all the time. For one thing, it allows the restaurant to have the servers with the best English to wait the tables with English-only speakers. For another, it means in a lot of cases that the smokers can congregate (they are usually Europeans). For yet another, it allows the French to "segregate" the "tourists," something we don't want to know that they do, but that they do do, anyway. I suspect all French restaurants have certain codes they follow in seating certain groups of people.
StCirq is online now  
May 13th, 2003, 08:39 PM
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Yep-they sure do. I noticed that first off 2 years at a very nice restaurant down in the 6th arr.- there were 2 rooms, and we English/French speakers were all in the back, and the Frenchies were all in the front room. I've seen that in a number of countries, though. In popular local restaurants that have been recommended in a guide book, they'll put the tourists in one area, the locals in the other.
May 14th, 2003, 01:15 PM
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yes, I agree with all of the above possible explanations. Another is, that some people, mostly locals, are regulars, and as in any restaurant anywhere, are likely to be treated better, or at least, differently.

I don't always like the feeling that I've been lumped in with all the English-speakers (especially since sometimes I speak some of the local language) because it means I won't have a chance to possibly chat with neighboring customers who are locals.
I will say that at any decent restaurant, if I don't like the table I am offered I will ask for another.
elaine is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 02:41 PM
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If you travel alone you can wind up just about anywhere. I went to one resturant that was divided this way, but since I was a solo diner I wound up in what was apparently the regular section. EVERYONE knew everyone else, but me, and all the management and wait staff. These guys all hung around together all night. (They were nice to me, but my French prevented much conversation!)
CarolLA is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 02:44 PM
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This is one of the things that I love about a certain little bistro we eat in off of rue Jacob.
They seat us wherever there is a seat, often we are squeezed between neighborhood folks, who once they hear us conversing, strike up conversations with us and make us feel that much more at home.
There have been times that I have listened and noticed that we were the only English speakers in the place.
Scarlett is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 02:48 PM
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Now, Now, Scartet, You know they are all asking, now where was that?
cigalechanta is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 03:12 PM
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For the best all time Paris restaurant story, try and beat this:

I made reservations (or had my daughter make them) at this place in the Bois de Boulogne. The intent was to take this elderly couple to thank them for putting up Liz (my daughter) numerous times (and clean myself out financially if they drank too much wine--LOL).

This is a big ticket Michelin place.

My daughter spent her junior year abroad in 1999-2001, during the summer of 2001 she went over to France as an au pair in Normandy and soon found a job teaching for Berlitz in Muenster, Germany, learning German and supporting herself.

The great day (Saturday, August 18, 2001) arrived. We went. There was a message for us at the restaurant. The elderly couple have had a family problem and cannot come. Now this restaurant lets you use the phone. There is no nonsense about telephone cards, etc., etc., because you are about to break the bank at Monte Carlo eating lunch. I would estimate that if you watch the wine carefully lunch can be had for no less) than $150 per person without tip.

OK, Liz called the elderly couple and then there was nothing to do but eat. We ordered the tasting menu at 590FF a head because I was afraid to do anything else and we didn't know what the half the food listed on the menu was. I may have a fairly decent command of the language but menu French is a bit beyond me (and Liz); they can translate it and I still do not know what it is because often there is no equivalent in English. ("It's a white fish, not strong in flavor.")

It is the usual for this type of place: amuse guele, foie gras, a little fish (with fennel as the vegetable), delicious morsels of pigeon with couscous, cheeses you would never find in the US, a chocolate dessert (to die for) and little cookies (to die for if you are not already dead from the chocolate dessert) with coffee. You spend 3-3 1/2 hours eating. It was wonderful.

We ordered the cheapest bottle of white wine we could find on the menu at 190FF. Liz hardly drank at all (which made her Mom very happy). With the assortment of food, white was really the safest as I knew we would only get one bottle (We didn't finish it because Liz had about half a glass.). We did have glasses of champagne at the beginning. I got suckered into that one by the waiter pretty quickly before I analyzed how we were going to get out of there without ending up spending more than my airfare.

I felt sort of like a hick in over her head type of thing that you only do once. It is really hard to justify spending that much money on lunch when you can eat very nicely in a bistro for much much less. I should say that I almost never go to this sort of restaurant in the US, but, heck, I was in France. You know I was on vacation and the wallet was open and I was a bit reckless.

OK, this old guy sat down at an adjacent table with a much younger woman. She was in her forties and, well . . . who knows? We started chatting. He told us that he was Artur Rubenstein's best friend and that he was a retired general who had been in the Resistance I didn't know what to think. It ALL turned out to be true.

Finally, the chocolate desserts and the cookies were over. I asked for "l'addition". There was no "l'addition"; the elderly gent had paid. Please note that at this point he has progressed from "old guy" to "elderly gent".

Now, I did get this guy's name. He was a retired general, General Pierre de Benouville. I found out later that he was a Resistance hero and close to DeGaulle. EVERYONE in France over 40 knew who he was but I hadn't a clue. What do I really know about French domestic politics? Nada. The general reaction is, "He is still alive? He must be in his 90's." Actually, he is 88. We didn't ask. He told us.

It gets better. The Pre Catalan is in the middle of the Bois de Boulogne. You have to get there by car. It is a very long walk to the Metro. We took a cab out and I had not decided exactly what we were going to do after lunch--probably call a cab. He asked us how we were getting back to Paris and gave us a ride to Porte Maillot in his taxi (which he had waiting for him outside the restaurant during the entire meal; I only realized what had happened when I saw the almost 500FF price on the meter!). As we exited the cab, thanking him profusely, I took a photo of him, the unnamed woman and Liz.

I had a friend trying to track down his address for me after I returned to the US. My friend told me "No one will believe this story." I wouldn't either--if it hadn't really happened.

By the way, I did wonder about the name "de Benouville", as it appears to be the name of a place that was the situs of a major battle during the Normandy invasion. I did an English language web search and didn't find him but I did find the battle. Some people in the Resistance gave themselves new names and kept them. That is how he got the name.

When I returned to the US, my friend tracked down the general's address and a thank you note was mailed to him. I got a note back telling me he had moved and giving me his correct address. My note to him was followed soon afterwards by a small package of American gourmet food products from the local specialty shop, Sutton Place Gourmet. On October 17, 2001, I received a thank you note from M. le General thanking me for the package and telling me he thought it was already Christmas when he opened the package. In his note to me he said, <<J'aime beaucoup les Etats-Unis et tous les Americains sont marques par la generosite qui vous honore.>> ["I like the US very much and all Americans are marked by generosity that you honor."] I was very touched.

In early December I finally got around to sending M. le General the photo taken at the end of the dinner as we exited the taxi at Porte Maillot. Unfortunately, he will not get to see it.

On December 17, 2001, I received a note from my Parisian friend with newspaper death notices from Le Figaro. General Pierre de Benouville died on December 4, 2001. I am so glad I gave him a touch of Christmas a bit early. I will remember my afternoon at the Pre Catalan--and the company of a true gentleman at the adjacent table--for as long as I live. He said he liked Americans. Well, I like French people, and this guy was among the best.

LaurenSKahn is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 03:29 PM
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What an incredible story, Lauren. I am sure you will never forget his kindness.
wren is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 03:41 PM
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"What an incredible story, Lauren. I am sure you will never forget his kindness."

And that Pre Catalan is my response to anyone who dares to start the "rudness debate" about the French. It isn't rudness. It is different social rules.
LaurenSKahn is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 03:57 PM
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What a wonderful story!

I ate a very expensive resturant in France one time and we wound up making friends with the older man at the table next to ours. It turns out he had been to Tennessee once and decided he liked us. We only got a bottle of wine, he looked at our wine (3 young women without a lot of wine experience) and apparently decided we had not made a good choice. Champange and wine appeared courtsey of him since we from Tennessee. It was so sweet!
CarolLA is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 04:21 PM
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What a nice story Lauren. Thanks for sharing it!
indytravel is offline  
May 14th, 2003, 07:09 PM
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Thanks for the positive feedback, guys.

And, for the benefit of the Spelling Police, I do know how to spell "rudeness".

The Pre Catalan is, by the way, an absolutely wonderful restaurant. Bring plastic with a high credit limit!
LaurenSKahn is offline  
May 15th, 2003, 06:41 AM
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Lauren, what a wonderful story. What a memory! Thanks for sharing it.
Marge is offline  
May 25th, 2003, 05:04 PM
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Lauren, I read your story with my eyes getting wider with each paragraph. And by the end, my eyes were tearing. How wonderful! That's why I go back to France over & over.
MelissaHI is offline  
May 25th, 2003, 05:13 PM
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Wow! What a wonderful story!
LVSue is offline  
May 25th, 2003, 09:30 PM
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In 1985 we walked through the Bois to have lunch at the Pre Catalan as a special treat and it was wonderful. But as we passed through the wooded area, my husband noticed that there were soldiers or gendarmes with guns, a bit unnerving. Then we realized that Gorbachev was in town. He did not appear in the public rooms of the restaurant but was probably just passing by on the peripherique. In Rubinstein's autobiography he says of Pierre Benouvill "we became close friends from that evening on. He was a man of the highest intellect, an admirable doctor endowed with an enthusiasm for the arts and, thank God, with a magnificent sense of humor. His friendship embellished my life and his death left behind a great void." There is more about him --no room to quote. What a facinating encounter you had!
daph is offline  
May 26th, 2003, 12:24 AM
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business is business...
slicano is offline  
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